Mimetic Violence in The Red and the Black

Essay by willomight1College, UndergraduateA-, October 2014

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Two Scenes

Delving deep into the uncertain world of post-napoleonic France, the French novelist Stendahl paints the Bildungsroman of the ambitious Julien Sorel and his struggle for social prominence. Julien's principal obstacle, and motivator, in this aim seems to lay squarely in the hearts and minds of others. Examining two major scenes in the novel; first where Julien meets the Bishope of Adjade and then his whole experience in the seminary, we find a conundrum of what is precisely behind the actions and desires of both Julien and the people around him. To explain the often confounding protagonist, the critic René Girard proposes the theory of "mimetic desire", in which desires are not autonomous but mediated by a third party. Additionally, to shed light on the actions of Julien's peers at the seminary Girard employs the scapegoating mechanism. A system where groups avoid full scale uncontrolled violence stemming from mimetic rivalry by putting its blame and wrath on a single victim.

The necessary question to explore is the validity of Girard's claims in regards to the psychological undertones of Stendahl's epic; arguments for, and then against will be laid bare accordingly.

Girard's theories, as briefly outlined above, provide insights on how to concretely describe the reasons behind Julien's desires and the animosity he encounters upon admission to the Seminary. The theory of mimetic desire is able to fit in the spiritual awakening that Julien experiences in his meeting with the Bishop for a multitude of reasons. When first meeting the young clergyman, Julien immediately swept away. Stendahl writes, "Julien stood there astounded. As the young man turned towards him, Julien saw the pectoral cross on his breasts: this was the Bishop of Adge. So young, thought Julien; at the most six or seven years older then I am!" (Stendahl 115).